Save Richmond didn’t start out as a blog. No, this web address was originally snagged so that its founders could circulate an “Open Letter” that asked for Richmond’s leaders to reconsider the city’s toxic relationship with its creative community.
That happened almost exactly six years ago. But it might as well have been six days ago.
Among the things we asked for in the letter:
- A reduction in the city’s admissions tax.
- No hike in the city’s meals tax.
- Assurance that an independent feasibility study would be commissioned of a proposed downtown arts center… and that oversight of this facility would be governed by proven local arts administrators, including representatives from the city’s grassroots arts scene.
- Increased support for the city’s grassroots arts scene, including First Fridays, with less resources spent on publicly-funded downtown rehab projects.
- An end to restrictive ordinances and restrictions that served as financial and regulatory drains on nightclub and restaurant owners.
An editorial that I wrote for Style Weekly further explained the absurdity of the city’s stance towards its “creative class,” emphasizing the then-recent eviction of artists from the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center (these Richmond artists eventually found a home in Petersburg, which offered them sanctuary — our own town fathers did nothing to keep them here).
Other issues such as tolerance, inclusion and accountability were also addressed in Save Richmond’s “Open Letter.” And hundreds of people ended up signing it — from well-known musicians to respected visual artists, from soccer moms to advertising execs, all of them fed up with the city’s clueless and often thoughtless dealings when it came to Richmond’s burgeoning creative community.
While our message got some play in the local press, the letter and its contents were completely ignored by city movers and shakers — we might as well have been pissing in the wind.
In response to those who thought we were being too negative in our assessment of the situation, we gathered up much of what our signees had to say, noted what other communities were doing, and fashioned a general policy paper of arts-based solutions in late 2003 based on the problems outlined in the Open Letter. It was called “Boats Against the Current.”
Around the same time, Church Hill artist Lisa Taranto began lobbying then-councilman Bill Pantele to hold a series of meetings that included city planners and representatives from the arts and music scene, from gallery owners to rock drummers to sculptors. The objective was to brainstorm solutions to many of the arts-based issues Save Richmond (and others) had been writing about. Alas, despite a well-rounded plan of action, nothing ever happened with any of these proposals, devised charrette-style by a diverse crossection of Richmond’s indigenous arts community. Bill Pantele soon turned his attention to other urgent artistic endeavors — like funding a censorious war on fun through “the Party Patrol.”
I often stop to think where we might be if the city had listened back in 2003.
Six years and two mayors later, these same issues — from draconian city codes to high taxes to conservative censorship — are still with us. Many of them have reached a boiling point.
The Admissions tax remains, but…
As Terry Rea reports at SlantBlog, there is finally some movement on an ordinance that would abolish or severely lower the city’s crippling admissions tax. But it may come too late for some. At this writing, this tax may be directly responsible for the closing of one of Richmond’s true arts success stories, Gallery5. Read more about that here.
The city’s meals tax rate remains one of the highest in the region.
This, despite assurances from City Council in 2003 that the rise in the meals tax would be a “temporary” hike. The money from this regressive tax — which disproporately affects low-to-middle income people — went to fund a performing arts foundation that used the money to fund a multi-million dollar hole in the ground. A city auditor later determined that city council basically wrote the private foundation a blank check, and did not adequately define how it could spend the people’s money.
The performing arts center has still not been independently studied or treated to a single officially-sponsored public meeting.
Contrast this with the reams of paper and face time allotted to the recent Shockoe Stadium proposal and ask yourself why. Worse, the arts foundation has cited statistics and projections for their project that they can’t provide proof for — and that supportive city politicians have never adequately explained to their constituents.
Local arts voices are still shut out… along with the larger community.
Aside from those 2003 meetings initiated by Lisa Taranto, there has still yet to be a single official public meeting that invites artists, taxpayers and city officials to discuss arts-based problems and issues, including what kind of an arts center we want to have built with our tax money. Instead, we’ve been treated to a few “limited seating,” “exclusive,” “invitation-only” discussions that normally bring together the same old voices spouting the same old meaningless platitudes. This is not how you have a community dialog, this is how you throw a Tupperware party.
Six years ago, the Carpenter Center had a director (Joel Katz) with arts administration experience. He was eventually fired for disagreeing with the arts foundation. His real crime was in reaching out to groups like Save Richmond. Six years ago, under his management, the Carpenter required no public subsidy. Today, the planned Carpenter Theatre (CenterStage) will have no artistic director, will have very minimal representation from area arts authorities, will delegate programming to an out-of-town entity, and will cost taxpayers up to $500,000 a year.
So, in short, the future of Richmond’s performing arts scene will consist of theatres operated by people who have no experience in the field of the performing arts, and managed by a firm (SMG) that has been accused in the past of over-charging the city and gaining sweetheart city contracts over more capable competitors; a company that mainly manages hockey arenas and convention centers, not performing arts facilities.
Contrast this with another CenterStage — Baltimore’s premier performing arts center. It not only has an experienced artistic director guiding its creative mission, it requires no funding at all from the city of Baltimore. Baltimore’s arts patrons also didn’t need to hire an expensive consultant to steal someone else’s name.
No support for what works — grassroots arts and culture
After decades of failed “build it and they will come” projects — dependent on public financing and pushed by county dwellers in the metro business community — downtown is in the process of revitalizing itself. For that, you can largely thank the city’s grassroots arts and music scene.
But, despite this success, the city and its satellite business consortiums continue to do little or nothing for Curated Culture’s “First Fridays” — which has now been forced to close its downtown office because of a lack of money. Ah, but you’ll notice that these same folks have no problem touting the success of this monthly artwalk and the city’s resulting downtown renaissance on the city website and in promotional materials. What’s wrong with this picture?
Our city’s war on nightlife has, if anything, intensified.
New burdensome fees for nightclubs, midnight curfews and suspicious feuds with “undesirable” venue owners are why Richmond has earned the monicker, “The City That Fun Forgot.”
The recent busts by the city’s Community Assisted Public Safety (CAPS) program comprise yet another chapter in Richmond’s unfair targeting of music and cultural attractions. See the aggregated coverage of that here.
But all you really need to know about the bureaucratic arrogance of CAPS and its overseers can be found in this highly revealing Style Weekly report of a July 9 CAPS community meeting at the Visual Arts Center. An excerpt:
The Visual Arts Center of Richmond on Main Street seemed an ideal neutral setting for a meeting between Richmond’s arts community and the city’s Community Assisted Public Safety program.
The pristine, nonprofit facility was newly renovated with modern, brushed-metal interior architecture. It’s a friendly place for local gallery owners, and had passed its recent city construction and occupancy inspections with flying colors.
So it was no surprise to see the shudder that went through the meeting’s organizer, Curated Culture director Christina Newton, when one of the city officials in attendance stood up to call attention to a lack of marked exits in the second-floor conference room where the July 9 meeting was held.
“Tomorrow I’m going to send my inspector over,” said A.R. Abbasi, the city’s acting building commissioner — a half-serious joke that earned uneasy laughs from the already-nervous assembly of about a dozen and a half arts community leaders.
The group was gathered to seek answers about what many people perceive as a crackdown on code enforcement targeting the city’s arts and culture venues, including the Broad Street galleries that make First Fridays happen each month.
The punchline of the article comes from Mayor Dwight Jones:
“We’re going to take a look at it and see what’s going on with CAPS… I’m thinking there are some more serious issues that might [need] our attention.”
No offense, Mr. Mayor, but considering your administration’s decidedly mixed record of supporting the city’s arts and music scene, we won’t be holding our breath.
When we started Save Richmond six years ago, I was confident that town fathers and elected politicans could be reasoned with on the subject of the arts. That all one would need to do is identify the obvious problems, to document the inequalities and to present the evidence to the proper authorities, and our leaders would be only too happy to help the quite visible creative renaissance occurring under their noses. After all, it is only in their best interest. Right?
More than a half-decade later, I’m now disabused of that notion. As the last lap of the Downtown Master Plan process has shown, the powers-that-be in Richmond are utterly disinterested in the will of the people.
And this especially includes the artists and musicians that have made up one of the city’s few genuine success stories in recent years. As SR pointed out in our “Richmond Arts Flashback” series, this is nothing new — Richmond politicians and business community has traditionally shown little but contempt for its artistic community.
Gallery5’s Amanda Robinson is currently soliciting feedback from citizens that she wants to incorporate into her own contemporary “Boats Against the Current” document. She hopes to submit it to city council in the near future. We wish her luck but hope she has a lot of patience and a strong stomach. Go and share your thoughts with her here.
And — surprise, surprise — we are about to be treated to yet another “private” discussion about the arts. This one on Tuesday night at Morton’s Steakhouse. [Side note: With all due respect to the distinguished and noteworthy participants who will be involved in this discussion, having a conversation about the arts in such a conservative bastion is not unlike holding a vegetarian convention at Fuddruckers.]
At what point are we going to realize that we are talking in a vacuum? The problem isn’t that people in the arts and music communities haven’t been making suggestions and acting in good faith to brainstorm answers and offer up compromises and solutions. The problem lies in our leaders, who seem utterly disinterested in listening. All they have to offer up is empty lip service and sick jokes.
It’s pretty obvious that, six years later, our city is as clueless as ever when it comes to the arts. Sadly, for all of the “progress” made, Richmond’s creative community might still just as well be contemplating Petersburg.